joanne lee


nothing much to look at

An essay entitled Nothing much to look at appeared in ‘Frame’, a catalogue accompanying the exhibition of work by Uta Barth, Duncan Higgins and Carter Potter at Site Gallery, Sheffield, 2000.

As an art student I must have sat through long hours of ‘avant-garde’ film screenings. Familiar with the more immediate pleasures of television and cinema, such material seemed both mystifying and interminable. That these investigations into the material, formal and conceptual qualities of ‘film’ were mirrored in photographic media similarly bemused one schooled via the pages of glossy magazines. It seemed impossible to understand why ‘the image’ of which I was so enamoured, and which had brought me to art school, should be so badly treated. Years later and I have learnt to talk authoritatively about duration, the trope of repetition or the disruption of visual and narrative pleasure but I performed my first studies into the nature of my own boredom and wayward attention.

Elsewhere in film and photographic practice a kind of romantic modernism held sway - now rather scorned - in which issues like the formal purity of the image were assigned an ethical importance. The film theorist Jean Epstein developed the term ‘photogenie’ to describe the magically transformative power of the lens: ‘A lens zeroes in on it, drains it, distilling photogenie between its focal planes.’1 Writing in the 1920’s, Epstein claimed that the eye ‘cannot discover it directly unless after long practice’.2 His phrase describes, avant la lettre, the discipline of pre-visualisation that came to be practiced by certain American photographers and which reached its apotheosis in the work of Minor White and his contemporaries. The ‘distillation’ of an image by mind and lens, its enhancement by emptying out all extraneous elements - through composition, focus and so on - gained the force of a photographic law, one which survives in a bastardised form within countless popular photographic magazines and manuals and even here it marks some attempt to intensify the viewer’s attention.

So in recent years I have become increasingly alert to an experience of images that is characterised by the twin poles of numbing boredom and rapt attention. In the light of this, I began to notice a certain kind of image recurring in the context of home, garden, food and fashion features in magazines, newspapers, advertisements and in-store material, all of which are a long way from the modernist avant-garde I described above. These images seem absurdly empty: often a mere detail catches the lens’ focus whilst the remainder slips into a suggestive blur and at times the image teeters towards total abstraction. Paul Virilio has described such images with their targeted focus and indistinct context as phatic images.3 He notes that phatic images ‘force’ us to look at a particular detail or aspect: they direct our attention, mimicking the operation of our own gaze. However the term first belongs to linguistics where it denotes a word used to establish social contact and to express sociability rather than specific meaning. Such words - the ‘mmn’, ‘really’ and ‘aha’ which lubricate everyday conversations mean little in themselves, but without them dialogue would be nearly impossible. The term phatic might thus be taken to imply that it is not the images per se that matter, but what happens because of them.

I am interested that commercial images, which are most usually considered purposeful (designed to sell an item or brand), should be so apparently vague. In many of these contemporary images, often the actual point of their focus seems almost accidental. Marks and Spencer’s foods campaign for last Christmas pictured plates empty but for a few unfocused morsels: one’s eye lingered longer upon the gleam of light from casually placed cutlery than the product being promoted. Virilio’s later observation that such images have ‘the will to engage the future’ registers a sense of possibility: perhaps because there is so little actually there, they allow a productive space for one’s very own fantasy.4 In his study of visual representations of the supernatural, Christopher Collins draws attention to the ganzfeld simulations experienced by pilots who encounter profound fog whilst flying.5 In such circumstances the eye, or more properly the brain, begins to ‘read-into’ the unrelieved grey. Hungry for absent visual stimulation, pilots begin to hallucinate what might be there. I consider something similar to be at work in the very different context of these emptied out photographs: rather than being offered specific signifiers upon which desire might or might not operate, instead we are simply offered a suggestion, an atmosphere from which to begin our own work (and from which to take our own pleasure).

Despite my identification of all these empty images, the twentieth century was characterised by an anxiety that the world was rather too full of sensation and stimulation. For many thinkers the dubious pleasures of excessive eye candy are ranged alongside the shocks of modernity (world war, industrialisation, technological change) as threats towards the psychological health of the individual and society. 6 Subsequently our more recent art, film and media theory pointed out (rightly) that visual and other pleasures often masked underlying power structures which needed to be revealed. Unsurprisingly, this critical project tended towards iconophobia in its insistence upon the propensity of images to seduce and mislead (two terms which become synonymous). Given that one’s pleasures were always then under suspicion it was inevitable that a counter critical reaction would take place. What has been surprising is that it would involve the revival of ideas from the deeply unfashionable Victorian aesthete Walter Pater. Decried by his contemporaries as a hedonist, Pater avowed the significance and value of momentary but intense pleasure. Here we are far from the worthy models of studious connoisseurship or contemplation, which had hitherto held sway within the ‘appreciation’ of the arts. His statement: ‘Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself, is the end’ indicates the extent of his belief that sensation suffices.7 For many it was telling that the YBA generation should be paraded under the banner of ‘Sensation’. On the one hand it denoted the artistic equivalent of junk food, exciting the mouth but leaving the belly (for which read intellect) badly nourished, whilst for a more supportive faction it indicated work designed to provoke a visceral and intense response. In either case, the rediscovery of aisthisis  - sense perception - within art is clearly allied to a wider discourse.

Because of course art is by no means the only, or indeed the most sensational aspect of our culture. Pater’s more radical proposition was to regard nature and human life as equally available to aesthetic experience. I acknowledge that for some, art is still distinguished by its ‘out-of-the-ordinariness’. This is largely effected by the parenthetic environment of the white cube gallery space which holds the visual noise of the external world at arm’s length. However, as a lecturer in fine art, I note that my students distinguish less and less between art and non-art visual experiences: such categorisation seems quite irrelevant for very many of them. The much-respected Susan Buck-Morss claims that the true implication of Walter Benjamin’s artwork essay is that the special, separate status of art (as opposed to other cultural products and experiences) cannot be maintained, given that the conditions of their production are so thoroughly blurred and as a result argues for an ‘aesthetics after the end of art’.8 Clearly my students are on to something...

It may seem odd to raise such questions as to whether ‘art’ is any more valuable than any other cultural/aesthetic experience, given that this is a catalogue essay for a gallery exhibition. My apparent failure so far to even mention the artists’ actual work may imply I believe the die is already cast. At the moment I can’t yet go so far, for the means by which these works came about does still appear ‘other’, produced according to a different and perverse logic. I am struck that for many people it seems a simple waste of time to create or even look at art. The artists in this show know a thing or two about such excesses. Here Carter Potter acquires whole reels of film only to select those relatively unimportant frames that precede the action in order to make his painting. (A certain perversity is further evidenced: here we have no poetic metaphors of ‘painting with film’ but the brute fact of adhering actual film stock to a stretcher...) Duncan Higgins meanwhile takes long hours to paint a sequence of barely changing images that we might quickly recognise as stilled frames, though it is unlikely that we would know that the video from which they came is the artist’s own incessant visual tracking across a single photograph (itself a reproduction). And Uta Barth repeatedly photographs the same view through her window, which reveals little of its blurry landscape as the lens fixates upon frame or pane. An earlier artistic tradition of diligent, studious looking seems an inadequate and inappropriate model: these artists describe different, more familiar modes of attention, which takes account of contemporary visual grazing.

Like certain conceptual film and photography, modernist formalism and the phatic photographs of some advertising, these images perform an emptying out. It is clear that the intentions of these diverse types of images are profoundly different, but what of their ultimate effect? They all offer a perceptual ganzfeld to which we might respond with pleasure or boredom or both (the two are not necessarily in opposition) but which we as viewers have some kind of space to do with as we will. Film theorist Leo Charney has argued that such empty moments in cinema allow a necessary return to oneself.9 So do these images offer a respite from the visual clamour of the overly stimulating world outside the gallery? Or are they merely another element of it? It would appear that they remain apart from the wider world (where images are quickly made and soon disposed of) whilst also yet a part of it (they enter into reproduction, appear in newspapers and fashionable magazines, become cool, or not). Perhaps ultimately this essay simply asserts that this tension can remain suggestive. Attending to our changing attention and its consequences here in the gallery where one’s presence is rarely casual or wherever else the image proliferates continues to be a productive and vexing project.


1. Jean Epstein ‘The senses’ in Afterimage 10 1980 p.13

2. Epstein p.13

3. Paul Virilio, The Vision Machine, London:BFI 1994 p.14

4. Virilio, p.64

5. Christopher Collins ‘Writing and the Nature of the Supernatural Image, or Why Ghosts Float’ in Beate Allert ed. Languages of Visuality, Detroit: Wayne State University Press 1996 p.248

6. See Susan Buck-Morss ‘Aesthetics and Anaesthetics: Walter Benjamin’s Artwork essay Reconsidered’ in October 62, Fall 1992

7. Walter Pater Selected Writings of Walter Pater ed. Harold Bloom, New York: Columbia University Press 1974 p.60

8. Susan Buck-Morss ‘Aesthetics after the End of Art’ in Art Journal Spring 1997 p.38

9. Leo Charney Empty Moments: Cinema, Modernity & Drift, Durham: Duke University Press 1998